by Eric Dupont
translated by Peter McCambridge
QC Fiction, July 2016
Nothing made Henry VIII happier and more considerate than baking bread according to his mother’s traditional recipe. He would begin preparing the yeast at eight o’clock in the morning and proudly take the loaves out of the oven six hours later. In fact, there was one thing that made him as happy as baking bread: beer. And since he was a practical man, he would often combine the two. The queen would keep well away from him on those days. For reasons I still don’t understand to this day, he would often insist that my sister and I stay by his side while he baked. As if to make us believe that our being there was somehow useful, he would ask us to add a little flour or a splash of water. We would feel somewhat useful. He would talk a lot. While the bread rose, he would wait in his rocking chair, reading a biography of the prophet Jacques Brel while he drank. I remain convinced to this day that it is impossible to understand Jacques Brel without a drink in hand.
A twelve-pack would be waiting patiently in the corner. At half past nine, he would crack open the first beer, once the dough had been kneaded the first time. He would be in a mischievous, light-hearted mood. Cue Brel’s “Bourgeois” who, like pigs, get stupider the older they get. Happily, cue “Vesoul,” too, and we would dance to its dizzying accordion accompaniment in the dining room. Like Brel, we wouldn’t be going to Paris, because we couldn’t stand the flonflons, the valse-musette, and the accordion. Fifteen minutes later, the second beer would pick up where the first left off. Cue nostalgia. The king’s tongue would loosen; he’d be funnier, too. To the strains of Rosa, rosa, rosam, rosae, rosae, rosa, he would recount the hardships of college, the unseen translations to and from Latin that my sister and I would never know since the Quiet Revolution had decided learning math was more useful than dead languages. He would tell us about the priests and the nuns, each less trustworthy than the next. He had flunked his Latin translation at classical college and, the way he told it, this had spared him from the priesthood, a destiny preordained by his role as the family’s eldest son. The king never missed an opportunity to knock a priest.
A third bottle would be opened. Cue a little overexcitement. Time for “Marieke,” too. He didn’t understand the parts in Dutch, but that wouldn’t stop him belting it out along with Brel like an ode to lost love. It’s but a small step from overexcitement to despondency, and the fourth beer helped him get there. “Les timides,” those poor tormented men lacking Henry VIII’s bravery and brass neck, those poor men who would spend their whole lives shuffling forward, a suitcase in each hand. Cue the flawless portrayal of a bashful man of our own right there in the kitchen, his arms hanging by his sides. Before the fifth beer, the laughs were guaranteed. Then came the tragedy, distinct from despondency with new inflections in Brel’s voice. A little anger in “La Fanette,” when he sings that “they had swum so well, they had swum so far that we never saw them again” and of all the times we fail to learn “to be wary of all things.” And so the fifth beer would bring us on to “Au suivant,” the song the king lived by. He would look us square in the eye, feeling every word, and telling us again and again, articulating every syllable, that it’s more humiliating to be followed than to follow. I would wonder when the king had ever followed anyone. Sure, he had had followers (all of the female persuasion), with dozens more to come, but I couldn’t remember him ever following anyone.
“Les toros” would follow. The same anger, but this time washed down with a sixth beer. A second round of kneading, a second batch of bread rising. A baking interlude that restored a little of the king’s sobriety. By then, the afternoon was upon us. Between the sixth and seventh beer, the king would slump into an inebriated gloominess that made him resemble Jacques Brel more closely than ever. The same hangdog eyes. “Les filles et les chiens” didn’t help. At this point, his resentment would be focused on things my sister and I didn’t have the faintest idea about. Fortunately for us, the eighth beer would be knocked back to “Plat pays,” a land that would temporarily lose its Belgian identity and become the enigmatic place where the king wound up whenever he drank.
Because it was there, just at the bottom of the eighth beer, that we would start to lose him. He would begin to lift up off the ground, rising ever higher, ever further, until we needed a telescope to watch him ascend into the sky. The rest would come to us in snatches.
The ninth beer. “Quand on n’a que l’amour.” The poetic trance and the insults began. “You don’t understand a thing!”, “You’re always talking behind my back,” the outlandish “Keep slapping on the makeup like that and you’ll end up pole dancing!”, and the hilarious “Get your nose out of that book or you’ll turn into a priest!” The king would be raving by now. He still managed to guzzle a tenth beer to the sound of “Une île,” that tropical destination just off the coast of hope, where he swore he would finish his days, not in this land of weaklings too scared to stand up and be counted! The bread turned golden in the oven while the sailors of Amsterdam blew their noses into the stars. The king would be in orbit. Then, the final nail in the coffin. The bread cooling on the counter. The king staggering between the fridge and the sound system. Speaking a language that he alone understood. Our kindest words would sting him hard. Then, the twelfth and final beer, leading straight—do not pass Go—into “La Quête,” played loudly enough for the devil himself to hear. Pity the wretch who failed to recognize this song as the most beautiful thing ever written! Pity the wretch who failed to touch the unreachable star! Might the ground open beneath his feet! Might white mice infest his home! The king would lie down on the sofa and fall into a deep sleep. There was no waking him. Only the queen would manage to get him up one hour later. He would retire to his bed, completely spent.
Baking bread is exhausting.
Alcohol dug an unfathomable chasm between him and the rest of the world. And it was alcohol that put the first cracks in the wall of power that he formed with the queen. Little by little, beer fractured their agreement, breaching the wall for me and my sister to slide out.
When sober, the king would be one with Anne Boleyn, forming a cold, authoritarian whole. But add a little wine or beer and the king would leave the queen’s gravitational field to become another, a star free to roam the cosmos. The most scathing of the attacks launched after the ninth beer included “I never even wanted kids” or the inevitable “Once I have my boat, no one’s ever going to talk to me like that again.” This little game played out more often over winter than summer. The last half-hour the king spent awake would be absolute torture for the whole court. The more he drank, the further he drifted away from us, moving elsewhere, north or south, it didn’t matter, to someplace where we were not. And when it was wine he drank, the trip would be all the quicker. As the years went by, he became ever more hurtful before passing out, ever more cutting, harder on everyone.
The king drank only on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, Labour Day, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, for the entirety of the local shrimp festival, on Workers’ Day, Thanksgiving, the Immaculate Conception, the feast of St. Blaise, at baptisms, weddings, funerals, while nodding off, filing his tax return, watching television on a Sunday evening, talking on the telephone with his brothers, learning to navigate a boat, at sunset, when visitors came, when visitors left, on election night in front of the television, on winter days when he stayed home because he wasn’t working, during construction work, at family suppers, at police get-togethers, and during the summer holidays.
Otherwise, Henry VIII never touched a drop.
Translation by Peter McCambridge